Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Life on the Road: Open Borders and Open Hearts
February 2, 2017 --President Trump's ban of Muslim immigrants and refugees from seven countries, even though pitched as a short-term "pause," feels like a punch in the stomach. If leaders of other nations slammed their doors shut over the last four decades, I would have missed life experiences that could never have been duplicated at home.
In the 1970s, shortly after Richard Nixon pried open China to American visitors, I was aboard a Pan Am flight landing in Beijing. It was an eye-popping experience for me and the locals.
Young, mostly smiling Chinese people on bicycles and on foot looked at our small group of Western journalists like we were from outer space. In turn, we were amazed to see cabbages, stacked like green cannon balls, on every corner.
Beijing back then struck me as a sprawling village of low-rise buildings punctuated by a single high-rise, the Great Wall Hotel, later reflagged as a Sheraton. I was there to write a story on the hotel for Pan Am's in-flight magazine. I recall asking the transplanted American general manager why the bathroom tiles were falling off the walls of a brand new hotel. His rueful answer: "Chinese construction techniques are not yet at American standards."
China certainly learned how to build skyscrapers. But I'll never forget those young, bright, smiling, earnest Chinese faces, eager to connect.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, was a sophisticated boomtown when I was a rookie traveler. I had flown from Singapore on a Friday afternoon to interview the chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways. I didn't have a hotel reservation, but it was a Friday and surely there would be empty rooms on weekends in a business city. I strolled over to the posh Mandarin Oriental without a care.
"I'm sorry, sir, we are fully booked." But the Mandarin front desk clerk kindly gave me a telephone and a phone book. I dialed every single hotel in the city. All were booked solid, even the legendary Hong Kong press club, which then had a dozen or so single beds for visiting journalists.
I was down to the Ws and rang up the Whitehall Hotel. Mercifully, they had a room. "Hold it. I'll be right there. Do not rent it to anyone," I said. The Mandarin desk clerk scribbled out directions for the cabbie and we were off, zigzagging through a maze of narrow streets at top speed.
The Whitehall, it turns out, was four floors hidden inside a 12-story apartment building in the then-notorious Wan Chai District. A cramped elevator opened onto a floor with a clerk standing behind a tiny desk. There was nothing hospitable about the place: no lobby, no furnishings, no restaurant, bar. Nothing except about 10 doors.
I had to pay in advance, the equivalent of US$25. I was shown to my room. It had a single bed, a single lamp and a small television that played a single channel.
Then the shocker: I was locked in and the clerk kept the key. My protests fell on deaf ears. "Knock on door," he said. "Will open up."
After a surprisingly sound sleep, the same stone-faced desk clerk offered me his best restaurant tip. It's when I discovered a delicious Chinese culinary concept called dim sum. That first taste turned me into an instant--and lifelong--dim sum addict.
While I have answered the siren songs of Asia many times, a recent South American trip morphed into an unforgettable adventure. The real purpose was to find out whether a business traveler should book an Airbnb in a foreign country. The answer: Yes, definitely, especially if you want to enrich your life.
My host family was a single mom who owned an investment advisory firm; her three sharp, polite teenage sons; a pet Corgi; and a part-time maid. Price: $20 a night, including breakfast and WiFi. I would have paid ten times that for the experiences.
For example, I joined her Saturday morning on her weekly shopping trip to Santiago's public market. Under a corrugated tin roof that seemed to stretch for hundreds of yards, she schmoozed in rapid Spanish with the fishmongers, fruit and vegetable farmers, butchers and bakers. The two-hour marathon was interrupted only once: We took a 10-minute break for rich, dark, French-pressed coffee.
During five days in Santiago, I only had one problem: The Airbnb's WiFi signal was weak. But the Dunkin' Donuts shop on the corner had robust WiFi at no charge. I bought myself a coffee, skipped the donuts and offered to pay for the table I was commandeering for four hours each day. The "rent" offer was refused and, on my last day, I was presented with a gratis latte. Why? Because I had talked with the young team about California, Disneyland and the names of the movie and television stars I've met. (None.)
I was in Santiago with a wedding invitation, too. Over the years, I'd kept in touch with a college student I met in 2000 while interviewing the general manager of the Hyatt Regency Santiago. She couldn't speak a word of English then and I spoke no Spanish then or now. But she was helpful to me and I've mentored her long distance over the years.
She was marrying a chef from Paris and the ceremony was a mind-boggling 14 hours long. It started at 5 p.m. with the "I dos" and continued until 7 a.m. with nonstop cocktailing, dining, dancing and partying.
I ran out of steam around six, but could not get a cab or an Uber car to come to the wedding's mountain locale. Instead, a couple, who did not speak a word of English, gave me a ride to a gas station in a funky part of town. They pointed to a gas pump and I got the message.
I jumped into the back seat of the first taxi to pull in and gas up and startled the driver. Once he regained his composure, I handed him the address of my Airbnb. Half an hour later, I was on the front steps.
Are these earth-shattering recollections? Of course not. But I don't like Trump threatening my right to jet off someplace new and make new memories. I don't accept anyone having that kind of power over my life.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.